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  • Writer's pictureChristine Skolnik

Divine Invasions Part 1

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

by Christine Skolnik

Below is the first of a three-part metareview of the scholarly work of Rice University Professor, Jeff Kripal, a pioneer and intellectual leader in academic paranormal studies. These posts are sketches of Kripal’s Odyssey through a vivid, meta-symbolic, intellectual landscape of Indology, Eros, Gender Studies, Logos Mysticism, American Spirituality, and Science Fiction, as well as an account of my intellectual and spiritual “travels” through his scholarship. Included in this series are Kripal’s first six monographs: Kali’s Child; Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom; The Serpent’s Gift; Esalen; Authors of the Impossible; and Mutants and Mystics. Paracultures will publish separate reviews of his recent scholarly monographs.


A procession of the damned.

By the damned, I mean the excluded.

We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.

Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned, 9

in Jeffrey J. Kripal, Authors of the Impossible, 107.

“Let the reader beware.” What follows may be an attempt to render the unconscious of the present text more conscious, but it will never fully succeed. It cannot. Alas, pure transparency is a pure impossibility here, for the simple reason that I myself, the author of these words, am not fully conscious, even to myself. I am Two.

Jeffrey J. Kripal, The Serpent’s Gift, 163.

Let’s begin with the Shatkona, a six-pointed star at the center of the Lakshmi yantra, as a representation of the six monographs reviewed here as well as auspicious beginnings. Six is our starting point, but if we imagine this figure rotating the possibilities are endless. The multiple compass points of the Sri Yantra, for example, imply many more trajectories. Indeed, they imply infinite points and directions, and in this the Sri Yantra also express the richness of Kripal’s extraordinary accomplishments. Kripal’s work is not merely expansive or centrifugal, however; the corpus also has a complementary centripetal energy. It evokes the tensions between mystical wholeness and its Gnostic contraries, and points to heretofore unimagined perspectives and dimensions. And yet, it all somehow fits together, like a Tibetan Mandala or intimate yet elaborate shrine. [1]

From Kripal’s work, we can surmise that his adventure began with vivid, symbolic dreams combining spiritual and erotic elements that prompted him to research Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, as an embodiment of the nexus of spirituality and sexuality, for his dissertation book Kali’s Child. The journey became mythic, however, when our author was physically invaded by a mysterious force which he identified with Kali, the focus of Ramakrishna’s devotion (or Ramakrishna himself). In November of 1989, at the end of a Kali festival in Kolkata, Kripal had an overwhelming and utterly inexplicable erotic encounter with an otherworldly energy (Roads of Excess, 200-202). Reviewing the corpus, it seems clear that he devoted much of his scholarly energy to an indirect investigation of this experience.

Kripal’s corpus is at once extremely wide ranging and surprisingly coherent. While the richness of the corpus may not immediately be evident in some of its parts, upon reflection I have a sense that somehow the whole resides in each monograph, if not each chapter. I say this not because the whole evolves out of the first monograph as a heuristic seed, but rather because every chapter evokes an archetypal energy “beneath” the linear development of the corpus. And this energy seems clearly related to Kripal’s intense desire to understand, integrate, and express strong currents of opposing cultural, sociological, and psychological forces that have troubled and inspired him throughout his life.

Kripal’s first monograph, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrisha(1998), is a biographical study of the great Hindu saint and reflection on his spiritual development and teachings, based on a close reading of the biographical writings and “sayings-collections” of Ramakrishna’s contemporaries. Kripal reads Ramakrishna within the context of Hindu Tantra and also through the lens of psychoanalysis, revealing previously censored homoerotic secrets. The book was awarded an American Academy of Religions prize, but also created considerable controversy in India when it was published and again, recently, on the occasion of the censorship of a similarly controversial publication by Kripal’s University of Chicago advisor, Wendy Doniger (The Hindus: An Alternative History, 2010).

Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism & Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (2001) explored a thesis that extraordinary experiences inspire mystical scholarship and are an effect of reading such scholarship. In this logical extension of key themes in Kali’s Child, Kripal illustrates how various twentieth-century scholars both conceal and reveal their mystical experiences as well as their most personal desires and fears within their scholarship. The book is divided into five chapters focusing on Evelyn Underhill, Louis Massignon, R. C. Zaehner, Agehananda Bharati, and Elliot Wolfson. Though any comparative study traces productive similarities and differences, the exuberance and eccentricity of the various nested authors, subjects, and texts creates a baroque edifice—as Kripal interprets modern scholars interpreting previous historical figures. Kripal’s themes of secrecy, sexuality, and hermeneutics are further enriched by interstitial biographical fragments, that both conceal and reveal Kripal’s own numinous experiences and formative psychological energies.

Mysticism, sexuality, and gender are further explored in The Serpent’s Gift : Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion (2006). In this monograph Kripal attempts to bridge the gap between conventional religious attitudes and the academic study of religions. Kripal winds his way through an other-worldly landscape uncovering profound insights into provocative and yet central religious and mystical topics including religion and Eros, the sexuality of ancient gods and modern mystics, the identity of the human and the divine, the plural universes of heresies, and the heresies of pluralism. While not quite a bridge over the contemporary chasm of faith and reason (which remains, for practical purposes, an aporia), Kripal’s work in this volume creates a clearing for both scholars and lay people to think about the problems he identifies with greater freedom, vigor, and depth of understanding. It also creates a context for his subsequent work as a continuation of the inquiry, and for the continuation of this project by subsequent scholars.

Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (2007) is a hinge between Kripal’s fascination with the exotic past and his remarkable insights into to American pop culture. This extensive historical study chronicles twentieth-century American spiritual awakening, confluences of Eastern mysticism and American enterprising curiosity, and the evolution of Western liberal psycho-spiritual consumption as a “religion of no religion.” Though it documents the lives of its founding members, Michael Murphy and Richard Price, it is also a biography of an “organic” cultural whole. Outside of Kripal’s text, Esalen remains clouded in mystery: a vortex of counter-cultural energies and a kind of totem, but also a historical lacuna, and a question mark. Kripal’s book is a remarkable achievement in its ability to weave all of this wonderfully confounding complexity into a coherent whole, but also in the depth and breadth of its scholarship and deep sympathy with people, places, and issues which for some have not yet attained the patina of history, and for others have been lost in a faded cultural context. Indeed, I half believe it is only through historical scholarship as a form of devotion that the spirit of Esalen could be thus discerned and intellectually revived. If Esalen required a significant sacrifice to keep its place in American history, Kripal’s Esalen is that burnt offering.

The companion volumes Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (2010) and Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (2011) could be described as a history of the emergence of the paranormal as an animate cultural category. [To be continued . . . tune in next month]

CS Note: See works Consulted at the end of Part 3.

[1] See this comprehensive extremely insightful academic review published in 2008, which makes similar observations about Kripal’s corpus: Hanegraaff, Wouter J. "Leaving the Garden (in search of religion): Jeffrey J. Kripal's vision of a gnostic study of religion." Religion 38.3 (2008): 259-276.

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